Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Thou shalt forget me not!

Species name: Myosotis sp.

Common name: forget-me-not

Location: Nova Scotia

One of the amazing aspects of the Acadia University campus is their arboretum and medicinal plants garden. Tanya and I spent a good couple of hours wandering around a relatively small corner of campus looking at their pond system (with bog, swamp and marsh areas that they had created), their native plant area, and their medicinal plant garden. The medicinal plant section was by far my favourite because it had so many unusual plants, most of which were historically used in native medicine or once used for extracts to treat a specific disease. They even had a wormwood plant, since that was once originally used to treat malaria!

The forget-me-nots were growing around one of the ponds, which leads me to believe this could possibly be the "true" forget-me-not, or Myosotis scorpioides (native to Africa), but there aren't enough identifying features in the photo to be able to tell for sure. The genus Myosotis contains about 50 different species, and almost all of them have the potential to become invasive under the right conditions. Forget-me-nots are popular garden plants in North America, since they are such an effective ground cover, especially in shady areas (which should lead you to believe even more strongly that they're invasive!). I remember planting the "mini kind", as I used to call them when I was 4 or 5, with my mom in our garden at the old house. More than 20 years later we were still pulling the stragglers out of the garden! Since the plants themselves were so short, it leads me to believe it was probably Myosotis alpestris that we were planting, or the Alpine forget-me-not which is the state flower of Alaska. For anyone that's counting petals, this plant is indeed a dicot!

Unlike other spring wildflowers I've blogged about so far, forget-me-nots do not produce rhizomes for underground energy storage. Instead, they have a diffuse fibrous root system so they act as effective erosion-control plants by holding in the soil. This root system is also what allows them to invade riverbanks (also called the "riparian zone") and out-compete native plants. It also produces more seed at a much quicker rate than most of our native plants that grow along riverbanks, which helps contribute to their success as an invasive species.

The origins of the common name of this plant are quite diverse, but I'll share my two favourites. The one my grandma used to always tell me (she had a story for everything...true or not, they were always interesting!) was about a knight in shining armour that was walking by the river with his princess when he bent down to pick her some flowers. The weight of his armour pulled him into the river, but before he drowned he threw the flowers at the princess and yelled "forget me not!" The Freemasons also used this flower as a symbol in the 1920s to not forget the poor and desperate people in Germany. The flower still has tight ties with modern Masons, often being worn as a symbol that those that have died are gone but not forgotten.

Forget-me-nots have been used (and are actually becoming more popular) in herbal medicine around the world as a treatment for chronic nosebleeds and lung issues. I would strongly suggest against the use of this plant for these purposes, however, since they potentially contain high levels of chemicals called "hepatotoxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids," which attack the liver and cause liver failure and can cause cancer. There is conflicting evidence on whether all species of this genus contain these alkaloids, but it's always better to be safe than sorry!